On the 6th of November 2022, The Sunday Times ran an “exclusive” story that may well be used in future textbooks as an example of how to create a drug moral panic. The entire front page was dedicated to the story, with enormous lettering declaring “Drugs H-Bomb on our Streets”.
The war reference, paired with the provocative image of a spoon being heated by dirty hands, is another addition to the 7 West Media/News Corp cannon of stories that employ war imagery to convey illicit drugs (and people who use them) as a terrifying moral ‘enemy’.
The story features an interview with the Perth leads of the Emerging Drugs Network of Australia (EDNA), which is a drug surveillance system designed as an early warning system that can identify harmful new drug trends. The Perth team have been taking and analysing blood samples from patients presenting to Perth hospitals who are suspected to be under the influence of drugs.
EDNA has been generating important data that is best interpreted through triangulation with other data sources such as the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, wastewater analysis and drug checking, in those jurisdictions where it has been permitted. However, as we, and indeed ABC Media Watch have noted, there are limitations as to what conclusions can be drawn from these data when examined in isolation.
For example, the Western Australian EDNA data only tell us about the drugs most frequently found in blood samples of people presenting to Perth emergency departments.
The Sunday Times did not report on these caveats of EDNA data. Nor did they triangulate with other key data. In doing so, the journalist reported that methamphetamine and GHB are the most used illegal drugs in Western Australia. This is simply not true!? Cannabis is reported by Western Australians as most used illegal drug, followed by MDMA and then cocaine.
The story goes on to provide examples of new/novel drugs that have been detected by EDNA. While these drugs could be quite harmful, the information is presented to scare and shock the reader, rather than educate them on how to manage these harms. At best, the article increases awareness of the drugs… and the folks at The Sunday Times were kind enough to provide readers with information on how to buy them, stating that there are “vast online marketplaces – often hosted on untraceable corners of the dark web – [offering] a wide array of narcotics for purchase from the comfort of your couch”.
Finally, the story tries to raise the alarm bells about “super-heroin” (or “H-Bomb” in the headline), drawing on the fentanyl narrative from the USA. However, the Sunday Times piece itself states that there has been a decrease in fentanyl being detected in Perth. Despite this, the Sunday Times quotes a Perth drug treatment service, who stated that “there had been a flood of … fentanyl being mixed into other substances, unbeknownst to the user”. Such dramatic language in the absence of empirical evidence is dangerous since it spreads misinformation about drugs in circulation, complicating people’s ability to understand the drug they’re using and to use harm reduction techniques (such as appropriate dosing and testing). The misinformation can also reduce public and community trust in media messages due to the ‘boy who cried wolf’ effect. The next time there is a true harm indication from EDNA, the public and community may be even less likely to take notice of mass media messaging.
The Sunday Times also quotes one of the emergency department physicians as stating that usually only one dose of the opioid antagonist naloxone is more than enough to reverse a heroin overdose “but there are people coming in now who need multiple doses of the antidote”. This message could undermine the efforts that have been taken to ensure that Australians have access to naloxone by suggesting that it is not effective.
The EDNA data are important and could be useful in preventing deaths. By building an evidence base, emergency department treatments that are provided to people experiencing toxicity arising from unintentionally (e.g., adulterants, contaminates, etc.) ingesting specific novel substances could be improved. However, effective treatment of such patients is typically managed symptomatically.
Further, the EDNA data would be more effective in reducing drug-related harm if it were communicated in a more targeted fashion to the affected community using principals of health promotion rather than broadcast to the wider community via a salacious piece of mainstream media reporting. Both NSW and Victoria have engaged with affected communities to provide an effective early warning. The Western Australian government is currently developing a similar early warning system.
Pill testing (or drug checking, where community members can submit drugs for analysis and receive results within a tailored intervention) would be far more effective at reducing drug-related harm since the drugs can be more quickly analysed and the intervention typically occurs before the person has already experienced harm. It would be far better to identify new and potentially dangerous drugs before the drugs are ingested. This intervention is currently being trialled at the CanTEST fixed site testing drug checking service in the ACT and should also be trialled in Western Australia.
The Sunday Times missed a critical opportunity to provide harm reduction. More Australian die from prescription drugs each year than on our roads – primarily benzodiazepines and opioids. By explaining how to identify and respond to an overdose, a reader might have provided lifesaving resuscitation. The journalist could have also explained how naloxone works, how it can be accessed and why it is an important medication for people who use opioids (including medications). The journalist should have also sought expert opinion from people in the AOD treatment field rather than relying on fringe organisations such as Shalom House.
Dr Stephen Bright, Senior Lecturer of Addiction at Edith Cowan University
Disclaimer: The author takes full responsibility for the content of this article.
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Journalists that would like to seek expert commentary on drug issues can contact AOD Media Watch who can provide referrals to a range of experts on the issue being reported. Guidelines for journalists can be accessed from our website and resources for the media are available from Mindframe.
The author of the story published in The Sunday Times was provided an opportunity to respond but declined.
Expert Commentator’s Response
Thanks Stephen for the opportunity to comment. It certainly sounds like you’ve found this article particularly egregious & I can assure you that Jess & I felt sick when we saw the headline, for all the reasons you describe. (Plus, it did not reflect the intent of the story). In fact, we deal with moral panic & stigma every day in our ED work, so your perspectives resonate. As you know, the media hates complexity & often adopts a simplistic or blunt approach to nuance & messaging, based upon a different agenda.
The actual story was principally about EDNA, especially EDNA WA. Obviously, EDNA WA is a subset of all WA data, & I note that the article displays a table stating: top 5 drugs detected in WA by project EDNA. I understand how the text might be misinterpreted. The ‘H-bomb’ analogy is also countered by my comment in the text stating “…but we haven’t detected any in EDNA yet.” I remember talking about safety in one of the interviews I did, something that is highly important to us. We are fully cognisant of the importance of messaging & having Paul on the EDNA team has been an invaluable asset for multiple reasons. We hope to improve the messaging along the lines you outline & you make many excellent points on this.